After discussing the air pollution crisis in Mongolia, Deniz spoke with the founder of breathe Mongolia - a tech nonprofit of Mongolian and global citizens with a mission to eradicate air pollution in the country. Learn more about the organisation and Aza below.
Founder: Azjargal (Aza) Tsogtsaikhan
Azjargal (Aza) Tsogtsaikhan is a Worldwide GBS Business Planning Analyst at IBM. She holds BA in Finance and Marketing from the University of Technology Sydney and MBA in General Management, Marketing and Finance from Birmingham Young University. Moreover, She has been accepted to the Hilary Term 2022 School of Climate Change at the Oxford Climate Society. Aza is the Founder of Breathe Mongolia, a tech nonprofit of Mongolian and global citizens with a mission to eradicate air pollution in Mongolia.
Hello Aza, first of all, we want to thank you for doing this interview with us. Could you please tell us about yourself and describe your professional background? How did you get involved in working concerning environmentalism and activism?
I’m Aza, born and raised in Mongolia. I currently work at IBM in New York as an analyst after earning an MBA degree at Marriott School of Management of Brigham Young University in the US and have received a Bachelor of Business at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia. Having become passionate about promoting Mongolian culture to the world in NYC, I became more interested in pressing issues of my country such as children’s rights and public safety. I learned about the negative health impacts of air pollution and the public health crisis in Mongolia after my family members got sick one after another. I started a peaceful demonstration against air pollution in Mongolia at Times Square and the movement turned into a dedicated team of diverse backgrounds from ten countries to arm people with resources to end air pollution in Mongolia. Along with Uyanga Ganbaatar and Oyungerel Munkhbat, co-founders in Mongolia and San Francisco, we founded Breathe Mongolia – Clean Air Coalition, a grassroots nonprofit registered in the US and in Mongolia. Our team created a bilingual interactive platform to educate the public, collaborate with stakeholders, and conduct watchdog activities on the air pollution intervention policies of Mongolia. I’m a trained Climate Reality Leader with a certificate from The SSPH+ Summer School in Public Health Policy, Economics and Management in Lugano, Switzerland. I’m also a recent OpenAQ Community Ambassador, a program designed to amplify the impact of individuals who are committed to fighting air inequality through open data and community. I seek to use technology and my global opportunities are to utilize top talent for the betterment of my homeland. When I’m not working, I love to dance salsa, learn foreign languages and travel the world. https://www.mongoliacenter.org/vss-26/
What was your purpose in founding "Breathe Mongolia"?
Young Mongols decided to organize a protest in New York City, raising awareness about the deadly air pollution in Mongolia under the #BreatheMongolia hashtag. The protest inspired other concerned Mongols and global citizens across the world. Our founders met in person in Mongolia and San Francisco and created Breathe Mongolia - Clean Air Coalition nonprofit. Now, the Breathe Mongolia platform serves as a central collaboration, watchdog and knowledge center hub for the fight against air pollution in Mongolia, run by volunteers in 10 countries from diverse professions such as atmospheric chemist, software engineer, urban planner, medical doctor and policy analyst. We are determined to bring all the stakeholders together and equip them with tools to eliminate the source of pollution in our homeland.
What are the reactions to the activism carried out by "Breathe Mongolia"? Have you received any feedback from the government?
The initial reaction was quite mixed but with the positives outnumbering the negatives. Some people were concerned about us talking about the issue on an international platform and did not appreciate that we made the country “look bad”. Most supported us and wanted to join forces to make a contribution to the solutions remotely and on the ground. Some of our rally participants did not want to show their faces because our parents or employers would not be happy, so we all wore gas masks to remain anonymous. Journalists in Mongolia reached out to interview us about who exactly we were, who our employers and parents were but we declined the invitation, because the cause was not about us and we were not an official organization. The government was hesitant to openly discuss this issue in the early years but eventually they admitted that it was a public health crisis and created a committee and a national pollution reduction plan with various stakeholders. Through our consistent commitment to the cause we had the opportunity to collaborate with many other organizations such as UNICEF, Mongolia, People in Need and Public Lab Mongolia nonprofit organizations and eventually worked with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to build a knowledge management and collaboration platform.
Did "Breathe Mongolia"s activism raise awareness of what needs to be done about air pollution in the country? What is the attitude of young people on the subject of this pollution?
Air pollution is a complex developmental challenge of our country. As a result, there is no one solution and action that needs to be taken. All stakeholders must take short-term, mid-term and long-term policy, regulation, interventive and preventive actions to tackle this issue from many angles and sectors simultaneously. Breathe Mongolia aims to influence the public’s knowledge and behavior so they take individual and group action to protect their health and reduce their own emissions while demanding accountability from decision makers. We meet with large stakeholders such as international development organizations and government agencies and recommend and review policy changes, research study topics, and monitor certain regulations. We do unofficial surveys among people to raise awareness of what needs to be done about air pollution. For example, we have conducted a survey among our volunteers. As a consequence, our volunteers have certain knowledge on air pollution but they do not know how to protect themselves except wearing a mask or having an air purifier. Therefore, they need more everyday actions to protect and prevent air pollution. Based on that we made a Take Action section on our webpage where you can find everyday actions to take in order to protect yourself and your loved ones. We use social media to educate people quite a bit and recently we conducted a workshop for elementary and high school kids. Some high school students are even volunteering for our organization and one of them just contributed to the Environmental Justice Handbook in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute.
Can we say that rapid urbanization causes problems of unplanned settlements and increased air, water and soil pollution, as well as significant health issues in Mongolia?
I agree that rapid urbanization causes several problems as the ones you mention. However, lack of appropriate policies on air pollution, on settlements, on development of infrastructure in the countryside is the core cause of air, water and soil pollution and health problems. People will always strive for a better life and will move to places with better life quality. Thus, it is up to the authorities to do its management duties in order to secure the livelihoods of the citizens.
Who are the most vulnerable people affected by air pollution in Mongolia?
Everyone, including unborn children are seriously affected by the air pollution. Our population is small and young. Only 3-4% of our people live past 65. It’s quite tragic that we have to breathe extremely toxic air before we’re born untl we die. However, as in a recent report published by UNICEF using data from Queen Mary University of London, researchers found that children were exposed to higher levels of pollution, particularly while walking to school and on the playground, and that the effects of this pollution were more serious on children than on adults. Hence the number 2 killer of children under 5 in Mongolia is pneumonia.
As reported, the pollution is worst in Ulaanbaatar's harsh winters, when people heat their homes with coal, including the circular tents known as ‘’gers’’. What should be done to prevent this situation, which has terrible consequences? Is the government working on this issue? Can you inform us regarding this?
I would say that this is a systemic problem. There is a lot that can be done to prevent this situation. First and foremost, we need expert human resources to address the issue realistically while developing updated and efficient policy. Next, we have to support the scientific innovations targeted to heat the houses and gers without coal. And lastly, we need to raise awareness that the citizens of Mongolia know how to protect their rights and demand what should be done from authorities.
Since 2017, the Government of Mongolia spent billions of tugriks on air pollution. For example, it has made a 48.6 billion MNT discount on nightly household heating tariffs. They spent 52 billion MNT for increasing the capacity of improved fuel production in eastern and western regions. 4.6 billion MNT was spent on dismantling 36 boilers to switch to electric and gas heating. Also, on May 15, 2019, the Government of Mongolia implemented a ban on raw coal and introduced improved coal. Unfortunately as we saw this winter no progress has been made.
As studies stated, poverty is the true culprit behind Ulaanbaatar’s subpar air quality. Therefore, the raw coal ban must be accompanied by social and economic policies that aim to lift people out of poverty and reduce air pollution more sustainably. In this regard, what could be the sustainable solutions?
I’d like to point out that pollution is a problem wherever fossil fuels are being burned in Mongolia, it includes all the major cities and province centers. It is more than just a poverty issue, it’s a multisectoral developmental challenge caused by the mismanagement of our federal budget, mismanagement of our housing, public transportation, economic development, urban planning and energy sectors. Even if everyone has enough money to afford an apartment, we do not have the electricity production capacity to power all the buildings. Plus our electricity comes from coal power plants and we would still be breathing polluted air from the power plants. Without investing in our public transportation and urban planning, we would never get rid of the traffic congestion and car emissions. Moreover, our pollution issue is not just ambient, but indoor air pollution too. We still have not legislated on an indoor air quality standard and enforced strict construction materials standards etc. During the time we had the highest GDP growth around 2012, we did not invest it in our healthcare and education.
UNICEF states that the organization is working closely with the Government of Mongolia in partnership with CSOs, the private sector, media, public opinion leaders, international development partners, advocates and influencers. What should be done to strengthen this partnership?
We have made quite a big of progress in terms of collaboration among stakeholders. Now we need to engage more fully with the public. The decisions they make and projects and interventions they’re working on mostly sit online or on someone’s computer and are occasionally mentioned on news sites. But there is no consistent centralized messaging towards the public throughout the year. We talk about pollution only during the winter season and forget about it during summer and people do not take the necessary actions to improve their energy efficiency to reduce their fossil fuel usage or take preventive measures.
We built the www.AgaarNeg.mn platform, a collaborative initiative between the Mongolian government, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and UNICEF, Mongolia for the air pollution community in Mongolia, and is completely free to join. We have not seen much additional engagement and development on the platform after we handed it off to the government, we are working to revive it and improve ourselves.
Can you tell us more about the future goals of "Breathe Mongolia"?
We will focus on our three missions which are education, community and acting as a watchdog. We will continue to raise awareness about air pollution locally and internationally, and help people to protect themselves all over the country. Moreover, we are planning to continue to monitor the air quality through analysis and advocate for open data, making the data actionable and accessible to all. We will advocate for stricter regulations in tobacco, car emissions and indoor air quality. We’re working to build capacity among the youth and prepare the next generation of environmental scientists and citizen activists.
Lastly, could you please tell us your favourite plant-based milk? (It’s a tradition😊)
I didn’t grow up consuming plant-based milk but grew up drinking organic pasture grazed cow’s yogurt and fermented mare’s milk called airag :) I still can’t call coconut or almond milk my favorite drinks, I’ll stick with Mongolian dairy products.